The Greatest Sport You’ve Never Heard Of

The World Rally Championship is the most spectacular sporting competition in the world.

Little rivals the feeling of hiking through a forest at sunrise, pouring coffee into a polystyrene cup, listening intently to a crackling radio and already drunken Scandinavians chanting beside you, anticipating the best viewpoint and hearing the crackle of the first car through the trees. Nothing is as chilling, nothing is as serene. And when a car is sideways at 80mph, two metres from your feet, it’s insane.

Last week, the WRC made BBC News for the first time in as long as I can remember. Perhaps this sport is returning to it’s glory days.

The WRC has been in a lull as of late. The last real British interests, 2001 champion Richard Burns, and 1995 champion Colin McRae, both died tragically in the middle of the last decade, Burns of cancer, McRae in a helicopter crash. In the time since the sport has been dominated by nine time world champion and the greatest driver in history, Sebastien Loeb, and four time world champion Sebastien Ogier. They may have been challenged by the likes of Jari-Matti Latvala, Marcus Gronholm and more recently Theirry Neuville, but ultimately the last 13 years has seen the French Sebs as unbeatable. The sport became uncompetitive, and that meant it was boring.

Around 12 years ago I first saw Kris Meeke, an amateur Northern Irishman, drive. He was mentored by Colin McRae. During the rise of Ogier, I heard that Meeke was rising to professionalism. In 2015 he took his first WRC event win. Last year I watched him become the first Brit to ever win the prestigious Rally Finland. This year, after competing a partial season in 2016 to develop a new car, he’s tipped as a championship hopeful.

The 2017 championship is, for the first time in a decade of the sport, a level playing field. Dominating drivers were left with last minute deals as VW left the sport, Ogier went to a recently unsuccessful M-Sport Ford, and Latvala to a Toyota team returning to the sport after a 16 year absence. The cars are built with new regulations which make them faster, ridiculous looking, and more unpredictable. In charge of the Citroen C3 WRC’s development, Kris Meeke knew his 380bhp beast better than anyone else knew theirs. I went back and watched onboards from years gone by in hopeful optimism that this year I could witness a driver I’ve followed for over half my life become the best in the world.

And then co-driver Paul Nagle yells “Jesus Kris ya bastard” as the car slides into a bank in the Monte Carlo season opener. A month later, in a now infamous onboard recording of Rally Sweden’s 17th stage, Kris swears at every corner, the car is doing everything he doesn’t want it to do: “I’m not driving this piece of shit.” Craig Breen, his teammate, turns to his co-driver at the end of the same stage and asks him to “just smile for the cameras.” The car is a mess and Meeke has scored just 2 points in 2 rallies. Citroen’s year of testing seemed a disaster.

Or not. Because Meeke and the C3 commanded the high-altitude, high-temperature, car destroying stages of Rally Mexico last weekend. A strong Friday and Saturday and a stage win on Sunday morning saw him with a 37 second lead going into the final 21km test.

Kris was back.

The ‘power stage’, broadcast live, strained my heart. Meeke has crashed out from the lead before, he’s crashed on final stages before. He doesn’t make it easy to be his fan. But this time it’s going well, he’s flying, he recorded the third fastest time at the first split, and now he’s gaining on second. We’re 11 minutes into a 12 minute stage. He’s going for bonus points.

“Jesus Christ Kris!”

“Oh naaaaw,” the thick Irish accent of Nagle bellows.

Then a cloud of dust.

Then Colin Clark on WRC Radio: “No no no no no no no.”

“What’s happened? Colin tell us!”

The TV broadcast goes aerial. Meeke’s car is still on its wheels. To much relief, the rolling we’d momentarily seen was just a loose camera. But the car is squeezing through gaps in a spectator car park. He has a puncture, he’s sliding round parked vans. Back in the service park a Citroen mechanic slams his laptop shut.

Moments later, he’s back on the road pulling with him a safety ribbon, a souvenir of his tenacity.

Twenty seconds later and Meeke is shell shocked, stalling the car after the finish and beside him, Paul Nagle is assuring him he lost. Thankfully, Meeke got the luck he needed. He looks to the sky and says ‘thank you’, Nagle draws a cross on his chest, rests his head in his hands, they’ve won by 13.8 seconds.

On news channels across the world the footage is repeated. It’s a gloriously exciting finish. It’s what this sport is all about. If flying off the road less than a minute before an essential rally victory is idiotic, then so is driving 100mph down roads you can hardly walk on.

With three different winners from three different teams in the first three rallies, the glory days are back.